Writers workshop at the first ASSITEJ India National Conference, August 2011
The 1st National Conference on TYA was a unique event in India attended by over 150 theatre persons, writers, educators and parents from all over India, as well as eight guests from abroad. Together they debated, networked and suggested ways of strengthening TYA throughout the country. A special feature of the Conference was the writers’ workshop, designed for writers/directors to explore the raw materials for playwriting, in keeping with the needs of their young audiences.
Twelve writers and theatre directors were invited to interact with twelve adolescents between the ages of 15 and 18, from mixed socio-economic backgrounds and of both genders. The idea arose from the fact that playwriting for adolescents in particular is virtually non-existent in India. The question we put to ourselves was: can we start a preliminary exploration into creating plays for adolescents?
The workshop was supported by the National Book Trust, India (NBT), an autonomous public sector institution engaged in the publication of books and journals, and in organising major book fairs all over the country and abroad, with the avowed objective of popularising books and fostering reading habits.
Professor Ashok Lal, a playwright of repute, designed the workshop. The short time slot allotted for the purpose was bravely moderated by Mr. Manas Ranjan Mahapatra, himself a writer, editor, and In-Charge of National Centre for Children’s Literature of the NBT.
Professor Lal titled the session ‘Languaging Ideas’, with the objective of “delving into the universe of the young—their ideas, concerns, demands, dreams, etc. both in content and form—and discuss their implications for creating absorbing and enjoyable plays.”
On the very first day of the Conference, on 4th August, Professor Lal met the writers and directors in an introductory session to talk about his plan and to invite suggestions. This was necessary because the time allotted for actual round of exploratory exercise was too limited—only two hours on the last day, 6th August. The question was asked as to why this decision was made when the topic required a separate conference over three days!
The organisers explained that the Conference as a whole was exploratory in nature: introducing the concept of TYA and exploring one theme for each day—theatre practices, theatre and education, and writing for the young. Each theme was examined through three modes: presentations of papers, workshops and talking circles. Thus, it was an exercise in time management in allotting ‘The Writers Workshop’ only two hours with additional hours for ‘ice-breaking’ and briefing.
On 6th August Professor Lal met with the twelve young people an hour before the allotted time, again for ice-breaking and for introducing the ideas behind their interaction with the writers and directors. These two preparatory exercises—one with the adults and the other with the young people —helped in creating an open and intense interaction between the young and the old, divided into three groups comprised of four writers/directors and four adolescents each.
The young adults were very open, unsettling at least one writer by advocating the idea of allowing children to be on a par with established writers. That assertion was immediately challenged by many others. The ensuing debate spiralled to a height where it was clear that the rights of the creative adults vis-a-vis that of the young needed a separate reconciliatory agenda. The scholar-observer, Ms. Sarita Sharma, thought that the “young adults are more adults than we think they are!” This definitely is one ‘takeaway’ from the Conference on the whole.
Sarita further notes that:
“The interaction with the adolescents gave the idea that the world looked at them as children, whereas they found themselves no less than adults. The youngsters were asked: ‘What would you like to see in a play?’ They had confusing responses about love and sexual attraction; about domestic violence; about children running away from home; or about freedom to choose a profession of their like; and so on. They thought these were pertinent issues since they were coming from what they experience in their daily life.
“One young adult came up with a suggestion that plays must be written on homeless children. This young person came from a comfortable background. Another adolescent, coming from a challenging background, immediately shared his personal experience. He said that he used to live on street before reaching a hostel meant for the homeless children. He, before reaching the hostel, as an orphan, lived with his uncle and his family under exploitative and abusive environment. In order to escape the suppressive living, he ran away to live on streets. Do we get two different perspectives on ‘the homeless’?
“Khusboo, a 14 year old Muslim girl, talked about the conditions of women deprived of education. She said, ‘Agar husband par dependent ho to divorce nahi le sakte. Ladkiyon ko computer seekhna chahiye. Job milne mein asani hogi.’ (If one is dependent on her husband, a woman can’t seek divorce. Girls must learn computers. Jobs would be easier to come by). The sub-text of the expression demands a world to be discovered.
“Kherrunissa, a 16 year old, contested the idea of parents wanting their daughters to be only teachers, and not to opt for other profession. But why?
“Another salvo came against the parents saying ‘NO’ to everything; without ever considering what the young ones ask for. There appeared to be a great divide between the ‘caring’ adults and ‘young’ adults. Parental anxieties causing restrictions, were perceived by the young as something hampering their learning opportunities.
“These responses created demands for the writers to write on the perspectives of the young adults. Content of the plays, it was surmised, could be rich without being prescriptive. Language of the plays could be simple so as to reach the young audience. One of the four groups talked about the needs for musical plays. Prayag Shukla, a prominent writer, summed up by saying that these adolescents wanted the plays to be entertaining, while at the same time, capable of reflecting on the complexities of their life.”
The interaction gave the playwrights a window to see the world of young adults from their vantage point, and further explore their imaginations, ideas and expectations.
Manas Mahapatra, as Chair, was quite optimistic that the interaction could be taken forward to organise more interactive sessions between the writers and the young audience, if only to create a body of dramatic literature suitable for publication and wider dissemination. Professor Lal was more cautious: “In hindsight, I feel that the young should not have been asked to make presentations, because, once they knew that they were on camera, most of them indulged in giving generalised lofty opinions like a pompous adult would do. In any case, it was for the facilitators to draw their conclusions from the interaction, and they would have been better off discussing their impressions, and work on providing pointers for the future.”
Vijay Sevak from Surat had a different opinion, “We playwrights identified some striking themes like freedom, relationship, teaching-learning style and education system, from the stories and conversations on which we had an in-depth discussion….[strengthening our] understanding about the ideology of the youth, their approach [to] writing, and the treatment of play-writing for them. The observers and coordinators concluded the session by giving some tips, and wishing the playwrights best luck ….”
The takeaways from the session could be summarised as:
• Joy and Art should be the primary drivers of playwriting and theatre production.
• Plays should depict real issues and identifiable human emotions & relationships irrespective of the form—musical, comedy, drama, fantasy, dance theatre, puppetry, etc.
• They should, as far as possible, be adapted for specific and narrow age-groups; plays for adolescents, for example, should take into account growing sexual awareness and the changing relationships within family and peer groups.
• Didactics should be avoided but messages should not be shunned.
• Even though the takeaways may not be new, it is necessary to keep reminded of them.
In addition to the Writers’ Workshop, there were written papers touching upon issues related to playwriting. With reference to writing for the young adults, one can quote Jayoti Bose’s caution that “they (the young adults) certainly want to move forward to the so-called ‘adult world’, its glamour, recognition, etc. They are in the process of becoming adults. They are not really keen on going back to their childhood which they have left just recently. It will take them quite some time before they will, of their own accord, crave for the serenity and innocence of childhood”.
Sukesh Arora talked about the growing pervasiveness of technology in the lives of young people and the way it affects their engagement with the theatrical form. The phenomenal rise of massive “multi-player role playing games", which offer increasingly complex and sophisticated narratives, necessitate a re-evaluation of traditional forms of storytelling. This raises a pertinent question of the forms of playwriting as well.
In an interesting session, Anish Victor cited the case of playwriting following a riot. He elaborated upon the concerns of the respondents while evolving the scripts and stories. But the actual playing using forum theatre methods “affected the writing and at times did away with it entirely”. Extending it further, Joyoti Roy, said that there are fresh demands on, and challenges before, the playwright. She said that the playwright must explore new languages that can represent ‘images’ and ‘sounds’ of performing culture.
Looking at the entire spectrum of deliberations on playwriting, we can conclude that in India we are faced with challenges on two fronts. The first is related to inspiring and encouraging established and new writers to write plays for children and adolescents, in a situation where there is hardly any conceptual development on TYA. The second challenge is that such writings must simultaneously explore new languages for writing plays while facing the challenges posed by the changing world—technological inroads, networking in virtual space, the world of sound and imagery, creation of theatre language that can connect beyond the ‘spoken dialogue’, and the rest…
The promise is hidden in the challenge.
Theatre for Young Audiences: Concept, Need and Possibilities
1st National Conference, New Delhi, India 4-6 August, 2011
Report on the Writers’ Workshop by Ashish Ghosh